Care work has long been considered the work that makes all other work possible.
The term “care work” encompasses both paid and unpaid work. The International Labor Organization includes two overlapping activities in their definition of care work: direct, personal and relational activities, like caring for children or nursing someone who is ill, as well as indirect care, like cooking and cleaning. Understanding what care workers go through in their daily lives is vital to provide them the assistance they deserve.
Most of the care work done around the world is unpaid and done by women and girls, often from marginalized groups, according to World Development Indicators from the World Bank. The amount of time women spend doing unpaid caregiving in comparison to men has profound impacts on economic inequality across gender.
The undervalued nature of care work also has ramifications for paid care workers. Care work has already been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds. The number of these jobs, which tend to pay less than the median annual wage across all sectors, is expected to expand further as the elderly population in the United States grows.
Domestic workers are one particular category of care workers. Domestic workers, whether they are hired by an individual or through an agency, do a wide range of work, from cleaning to personal care. The common denominator is that they work in private homes. Like all care work, the demographics of domestic workers are very gendered, analysis from the Economic Policy Institute shows.
Domestic work is also heavily racialized. Domestic workers are more likely than all other workers to be immigrants, and undocumented workers in the sector face additional vulnerabilities.
In the United States, domestic work is deeply entwined with the legacy of slavery. This legacy is why domestic workers, along with agricultural workers, were left out of the labor protections granted in the 1930s, including the collective bargaining protections of the National Labor Relations Act. This exclusion continued in various subsequent labor protections.
Domestic work is also borne out of the history of settler colonialism in the United States. Indigenous people worked during the colonial period as domestic servants, both as enslaved or waged laborers. Policies created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs institutionalized the practice. This was a part of the U.S. policy of assimilation – Indigenous girls were placed in boarding schools to learn about maintaining a household and then placed in the homes of white settler colonial families as domestic workers.
The current realities of domestic workers reflect these racist histories. Domestic workers continue to be excluded from a variety of labor protections to this day. Working in private residences leaves domestic workers particularly vulnerable. Surveys done by the Institute for Policy Studies and National Domestic Workers Alliance have highlighted the lack of worker protections and potential for sexual harassment and abuse. This lack of protection goes hand in hand with the devaluation of domestic work. As the Economic Policy Institute shows, domestic workers face high poverty rates.
Groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have long organized and advocated to enshrine rights and benefits tailored to the unique challenges domestic workers face. Several cities and states have passed Domestic Worker Bills of Rights, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal and then-Senator Kamala Harris introduced the first National Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in Congress in 2019.
Implementing worker protections and benefits is one crucial aspect of reducing inequalities in the care economy. So too is investment in care. A first of its kind study from the UCLA Labor Center sheds light on the California households that employ domestic workers, which total as many as 2 million, 44 percent of which are low-income.
Poor pay is also prevalent in California, UCLA found. Four in ten employees are paid a low wage, defined as less than two-thirds the full-time median wage, which at the time of the study was $13.83 an hour. Seventeen percent were paid below the minimum wage. One in five moderate and high-income households paid a low wage despite being able to pay more, while a third of low-income households paid higher wages.
Some states have implemented programs to begin to offset the costs of providing care. In Hawaii, the Kupuna Caregivers Program provides financial assistance to employed caregivers to offset the cost of care so they can remain in the workforce. Washington has created a social insurance program to help cover the costs of elder care. The National Academy of Social Insurance has laid out a menu of options for states building towards universal family care. Modeling from the International Trade Union Confederation also shows that investments in the care economy are a more gender equitable way to stimulate employment and economic growth.
Care work is critical to the functioning of our society at any time. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this workforce, which is overwhelmingly female and disproportionately people of color, has become even more essential.
Already a vulnerable category of workers, domestic workers are under immense stress as they serve on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to an April 2020 survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 84 percent of domestic workers reported experiencing food insecurity, 77 percent were the primary breadwinners for their families, 72 percent reported having lost their livelihoods, and half reported lacking access to medical care during the pandemic.
As a joint survey from the Institute for Policy Studies and the National Domestic Workers Alliance shows, Black immigrant domestic workers are even more vulnerable during this crisis. More than 800 respondents in three communities — New York, Boston, and Miami-Dade County in Florida — show the scale of this crisis. As of June 2020, 65 percent reported being at risk of eviction or utility shut off in the next three months, 49 percent were fearful of seeking out government aid due to their immigration status, 45 percent had lost their jobs, and a quarter reported having their hours reduced.
Because women tend to bear more responsibility for family caregiving, they were more likely than men to drop out of the labor force, particularly in the first phase of the pandemic, to take care of children who had to stay home from school or day care or to help infected family members. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, between January 2020 and June 2021, women’s labor force participation rate dropped by 1.7 percentage points. Rand Corporation research reveals that the participation gap between women and men with children was even larger during this period. The steepest decline in labor force participation was among women with two children, at 3.82 points, compared to a 1.39 point drop for men with two children.
Among U.S. women who’ve stopped looking for work during the pandemic, the steepest drops have been among women of color. Between February 2020 and November 2021, Black women had a 3.5 percentage point drop in labor force participation and Latinx women had a 2.8 point drop, compared to 1.7 for white women. Several factors may have contributed to women of color becoming discouraged from seeking work. On top of gender inequities, women of color face racial discrimination in hiring and layoffs and they are disproportionately concentrated in service and care sector jobs with high risks of Covid exposure.
MORE INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES RESOURCES ON THE CARE ECONOMY
Video: Black Immigrant Domestic Workers in the Time of Covid-19, Co-produced with the National Domestic Workers Alliance
I Am Not a Mop Bucket for Wealthy Families: Domestic Workers Like Me Need Covid-19 Relief, Regardless of Immigration Status